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Inside the Ring: Political delay for ICBM test?

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Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei speaks during a news briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, China, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011. China, the world’s most prolific executioner, put a Filipino man convicted of drug trafficking to death on Thursday despite a clemency appeal from the Philippine president. Hong told a regular news briefing that the case was handled in accordance with the law and that the countries had been in contact over it. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Defense officials say unusual delays in conducting an Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile test may have more to do with politics than technical problems.

The Air Force Global Strike Command, based at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., planned to conduct a Minuteman III flight test earlier this year but has scrapped the launch three times.

One missile was fired in April, but a second test is now delayed until after the presidential election.

Defense officials disputed the official explanation for the delays: that components used in the missile’s self-destruct mechanism malfunctioned and needed to be replaced.

That claim was challenged by a missile specialist who said it was an excuse. The official said such glitches are normally remedied with redundant systems, or a relatively quick parts replacement that should not take nine months.

Further suspicions of a political decision behind the testing delay were fueled when the Strike Command recently announced the test now will take place Nov. 14 - after the presidential election - when it may well be put off again.

“The launch for GT 206 is scheduled for Nov. 14,” said Strike Command spokeswoman Michele Tasista, referring to the number designator. “This is the only test window remaining for us in 2012. We expect four test launch opportunities in 2013.”

According to Obama administration arms control officials, concern about Chinese or Russian reaction to the routine and necessary test-firing likely intervened to put off the test so as to avoid upsetting the Russians.

“These things can’t just be fired off because [Air Force Strike Command] decides to,” said one official. “They are carefully planned and controlled by treaties.”

The political misgivings are the result of senior U.S. officials fearing a nuclear-armed adversary might mistake the test launch for a pre-emptive nuclear attack.

By contrast, Russia’s military apparently has no similar concerns. Moscow test-fired a new ballistic missile in May that Russian officials said has new capabilities to penetrate U.S. missile defenses, a major Russian concern.

Officials at the Air Force Strike Command, which is in charge of the test, disputed the assertion of political interference but declined to answer questions about the testing delays beyond a brief statement.

“The only policy issue we are aware of pertains to range safety, and that is why we are replacing a test-unique instrumentation component on the missile,” Ms. Tasista said.

The three ICBM launch postponements, first set for March 1, then April 10 and most recently May 16, were due to the same problem related to the missile’s self-destruct capability, according to the command.

The missile was to be fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., home of the U.S. long-range missile defense interceptors that are part of the system that has upset Russia and China because of their capabilities to shoot down high-speed long-range missiles.

Air Force Lt. Col. Ron Watrous told Inside the Ring that the delays are the result of the technical problems with the missile destruct mechanism that were found after the successful flight test of a Minuteman III in April and led to the delays in the next test. That flight test was the only one so far this year and, unless the November test occurs, could be the last.

Asked if arms control concerns were behind the delays, Col. Watrous said: “There has been no discussion of any of that. It is simply a range safety issue.”

The Strike Command statement said the “test-unique instrumentation component on the missile” being replaced is solely for test launches for safety and tracking and “does not have any role or impact on the operational reliability or effectiveness of the ICBM itself.”

“The test-unique component, which is being replaced, is part of a larger flight termination system, which provides Airmen the ability to monitor and safely terminate the missile in flight,” the statement said.

The tests program is designed to “to validate and verify the effectiveness, readiness and accuracy of the weapon system,” the statement said, noting that “we have several other tests by which we obtain the data necessary to confirm the operational readiness of the ICBM fleet.”

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About the Author

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.

He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.

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